The DNC Chair Race was Decided by an Islamophobic Smear Campaign, and Rigged by Obama

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The DNC Chair Race was Decided by an Islamophobic Smear Campaign, and Rigged by Obama

One of the silver linings of Saturday’s election of former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez for DNC Chair over Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) is that it clarified and identified the kinds of people who stand in the way of party unity and are willing to destroy the Democratic Party. They are people who care more about their egos, saviors or pet issues than they do about defeating Trumpism. They either perpetuate bigotry or tolerate it. And they are disingenuous. What’s not to like? As I’m sure you know, I’m referring to the people who fought hard to get Tom Perez elected DNC chair.

Before going further, I should say that I don’t hate Tom Perez or think he will destroy the party as chair of the DNC. The people who are destructive to the Party are those who were so invested in a Perez victory that they used smears and meddling in elections to achieve it. Perez seems like a very nice and (fairly) decent guy. And speaking of meddling in elections, the guy is honest enough to have said the following, out loud, when he was campaigning in Kansas: “We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged, and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s why we need a chair who is transparent.”

But he’s also political and dishonest enough to have very unconvincingly walked that statement back. Something else I like about him is that he didn’t particularly even want to run. Though it’s getting almost no coverage, we now know that President Obama did precisely what Perez vowed to stop as DNC Chair: rigged the election, even convincing Perez to run in the first place, which I’ll go into later. The point is even Tom Perez wasn’t so invested in a Perez victory.

This isn’t an attempt to demote Perez and promote Ellison. The election is over. But it’s an attempt to identify the people and ideologies that stand in the way of party unity, and to push back on them. And they turn out to be the people and the ideologies behind Tom Perez’s win. The good news is they are powerful but in the minority and are an ad hoc group including renowned liar & anti-semite labeler Alan Dershowitz, other Islamophobic Israel hawks, (this is probably a good time for me to mention that I’m Jewish and have cousins who live there, even though I shouldn’t have to, but at least people will accuse me of being a self-loathing Jew and not an anti-semite), and Obama and his inner circle who meddled in the election behind closed doors (sorry guys). I am not including the less vocal politicians who endorsed Perez or unions or organizations because they, unlike the people listed above, were not as instrumental in Perez’s win and hopefully were acting in the best interest of their members.

The Smearers

Before getting to the smears, it’s important to note that Ellison was endorsed by prominent Jewish leaders ranging from Sanders (whose views on Israel/Palestine are close to Ellison’s) to Schumer (who is far to the right of Ellison on this issue) to Weingarten (who is between the two) to the Jewish organization Bend The Arc to members of his community in Minneapolis, where a rabbi praised him as “an exquisite mensch, brilliant, a terrific community organizer who represents his constituency with great integrity.” A group of 300 Jewish leaders, including 100 rabbis, signed a letter issuing “a call to reject the unfair and baseless accusations some have leveled at him.”

Ellison’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are mainstream. He supports a two state solution and does not support the BDS movement. He has this crazy idea that stopping the Gaza Blockade is actually good for peace! While the smearers probably do find a call for peace objectionable if it involves any relenting anti-semitism, Gleen Greenwald explains what makes Ellison so smearable to these people: “Ellison is a mainstream liberal Democrat, albeit situated on the left wing of the party as it is currently constituted in Congress (which is not very far to the left given that Nancy Pelosi resides in a nearby ideological precinct). What makes him such an easy and vulnerable target for smear campaigns such as the one Saban and the ADL are pursuing is that he is Muslim — a black Muslim to boot.”

Meet smearer extraordinaire Haim Saban, the Israeli-American billionaire and entertainment mogul and a major funder of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. He describes himself as “a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.” Good on him for owning that! And he describes Ellison as “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual… Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.” The Anti-Defamation League, which, unlike Saban pretends to care about issues in the United States, and claims to fight against bigotry, when they’re not engaging in it themselves, called comments made by Ellison “disqualifying” because they suggested, “that U.S. foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America’s best interests.” Jack Rosen of the American Jewish Congress, emailed DNC members the day before the vote saying that Ellison threatened the U.S.-Israel relationship. And this is just what we know—who knows how many more behind the scenes discussions, emails, phone calls were made by the American Jewish Congress or other organizations? And what they said?

We may never know. But maybe we can kind of gauge the rhetoric if we look to Alan Dershowitz, the controversial lawyer who says in public what most people who share his ideas say in private.

The lawyer and law professor is so dishonest and unethical, he managed to not only plagiarize but get busted lying over his plagiarism—a pretty impressive feat. He went on TV and wrote op-eds arguing that George Zimmerman should not be prosecuted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, the teenager armed with a hoodie, skittles and iced tea. He was accused of statutory rape and defamation in a case that ended in a settlement. But Dershowitz spends most of his time justifying anything Israel ever does and labeling all people who criticize the Israeli government as anti-semites.

And in what might have been the best Ellison endorsement ever, the Dersh published an oped in The Hill on Friday, the day before the election, “threatening” to “leave the Democrats if Keith Ellison is elected its chairman.” You see, Ellison is Muslim. And Dershowitz was forced to consider leaving the party over what he described as Ellison’s “long history of sordid association with anti-Semitism.” And Dershowitz would know! Because if anyone has had a “long history of sordid association with anti-Semitism,” it’s Alan! He has used charges of anti-Semitism against obvious Jew haters like Bishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, the Duchess of York, Black Lives Matter and Doctors without Borders.

But you know who Dershowitz refuses to label as anti-Semitic? Alt-Right cheerleader Steve Bannon, who, I would argue, is significantly more antisemite-adjacent than Bishop Tutu. Dershowitz even gave an exclusive interview to Breitbart, of course, cautioning that “one has to be very careful about using the term anti-Semitic… I don’t think anybody should be called or accused of being anti-Semitic unless the evidence is overwhelming.” Dershowitz was equally prudent about the word in an MSNBC interview he did with Steve Kornacki on Nov. 15. When the host pressed the jurist about Banon, Dershowitz said, “I just don’t think you should toss that phrase around casually unless there is overwhelming evidence.” When Kornacki brought up Bannon’s ex-wife’s claims in court filings that her husband didn’t want to send their kids to a school with so many Jews, Dershowitz scoffed: “Well, first of all, a court filing, it was the testimony of his former wife. Of course it’s in a court paper!” But Bannon, “disputed and contradicted it and said it never happened. He just — from what I heard, he wanted to send his kids to a Catholic school and that was a point of division between him and his former wife.” Fair enough. That may not be the “overwhelming evidence,” which Dershowitz requires before labeling someone anti-semitic.

Funnily enough, Dershowitz has a much lower burden of proof when it comes to Ellison, when he drops this smoking gun in his Hill oped:

“Ellison himself has made anti-Semitic statements. A prominent lawyer, with significant credibility, told me that while he was a law student, Ellison approached her and said he could not respect her, because she was a Jew and because she was a woman who should not be at a law school. This woman immediately disclosed that anti-Semitic and anti-feminists [sic] statement to her husband and friends, and I believe she is telling the truth.”

So, just to review, Dershowitz dismisses Bannon’s wife’s claims that her husband, an alt-right leader, and the publisher of a site adored by white supremacists and anti-semites, said anti-semitic things. But Dershowitz believes a woman who said Ellison, a would-be Congressman who has been endorsed by Jewish organizations, made statements, while a student in law school, that Jews didn’t deserve his respect and women didn’t belong in school. Even if Ellison held these beliefs, which he so clearly doesn’t, why would he out himself as a fundamentalist? How could he ever have said something like that? Dershowitz might as well have claimed that this same woman had told him that Ellison had raised his hand in their intro to criminal law class and announced his plans to implement sharia law and honor killing. The story reeks of Islamophobic stereotypes about Muslims as backwards fundamentalists who hate us for our freedoms (and our Jews and educated women). It’s so over the top it’s just not at all credible. In fact, I find myself laughing at this very moment as I imagine Ellison saying that. You’d think Dershowitz, who lies so frequently, would be better at it by now. Less is more, Alan.

Dershowitz had actually told Fox News he’d leave the party over Ellison back in December. But he had planted the seeds back in November while talking to Kornacki. The irony, though, is that Dershowitz made an analogy between Bannon and Ellison, in which he claimed that neither one was an anti-semite. In order to prove that Bannon’s popularity among anti-semites did not make him an anti-semite per se, Dershowitz said, “Is he supported by bigots?... Yes he is! But to show you an analogy, if Keith Ellison, who is a decent, good person, were to be appointed to the Democratic National Committee, Hamas would support, would cheer and yell because he has had some association with Farrakhan in the past… You can’t always judge a person by the supporters.”

So, The Dersh kills few birds with one bigoted stone. He attempts to defend Bannon from accusations of anti-semitism, equates running a white nationalist website with having attended the Million Man March (which was also attended by Maya ANgelou and Rosa Parks, each of whom spoke), links the Congressman to Louis Farrakhan and Hamas, and even frames Ellison’s would-be election to DNC chair as a victory for Hamas. I can only imagine the sadness and anger in the eyes of the Hamas leadership who were glued to CSPAN and watching the results of the election.

But even by his own standards, Dershowitz is being a dishonest hypocrite. He argues that just like Ellison isn’t an anti-semite, neither is Bannon. But his op-ed describes Ellison’s anti-semitism as “confirmed” If, as Dershowitz asserts in his op-ed, Ellison is an anti-semite, then so is Bannon. So Dershowitz was wrong or lying then, or is wrong or lying now.

And when the DNC chose Perez over Ellison, they made Dershowitz very happy and kept him in the party. Appearing on Fox and friends Sunday, Dershowitz himself expressed his renewed commitment to the party and even framed the DNC election as a battle his side won: “I’m staying in the party because Ellison was defeated and the Ellison defeat is a victory in the war against bigotry, anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel push of the hard left within the Democratic party…Ellison was a point of principle,” he said. “I wouldn’t leave the Democratic party if they were moving slightly to the left. I’ll fight them. It’s because of his history of anti-Semitism.”

Dershowitz is consistent in that his threat about the DNC Chair election and his response to the results are both grounded in dishonesty and hypocrisy. Dershowitz congratulates himself and Ellison on defeating anti-Semitism. But given that the first thing Perez did as chair was appoint Keith Ellison deputy chair, Dershowitz should be outraged. If Ellison is the face of bigotry and anti-semitism, doesn’t that make Tom Perez a collaborator? What kind of chair would empower an anti-semite? And what kind of party would tolerate it?

Dershowitz, out of respect for your principles, I urge you to leave the party.

I’d go on about all the lies Dershowitz told since November alone, but I’d be here all week. I will have to do a deep dive on Dersho-lies in another piece.

Several people who worked on Ellison’ campaign or supported him say that the smears made it harder for Ellison to compete against Perez and forced the campaign to respond to someone else’s talking points. It was certainly bad enough that Schumer felt the need to put out a statement the day before reaffirming that Ellison was “a friend to Israel”. Given how close the vote was, it’s hard to imagine how the attacks on Keith didn’t influence the outcome.

But we have to give credit where credit is due. Islamophobia wasn’t the only thing helping Perez win…

The Meddlers

It’s not that surprising that people who prioritize Israel over all other issues are not great for party unity. That goes with the one issue territory. These guys are, on their faces, divisive and destructive. But one would think that the politicians and Democratic hacks would be interested in a stronger and more robust party if, at least, their priorities really are winning elections and defeating Trump.

Yet somehow, when the votes were counted, Tom Perez beat Ellison 235 to 200. The first thing Perez did was name Ellison deputy chair, a position that didn’t actually exist up until that very moment, making the appointment either very flattering or very insulting.

Part of what makes supporting Perez so suspect is that Ellison is so obviously the better and more unifying candidate. An early Bernie supporter and one of Sanders’ appointees to the Democratic Platform committee, where he pushed for strong language around the minimum wage and against TPP, Ellison was of course endorsed by usual suspects like Sanders, former State Senator Nina Turner (OH), and Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ). But he was also able to transcend the Clinton-Sanders divide to a large degree, shoring up support from Clintonites like Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), Sen. Harry Reid (NV) Rep. John Lewis (GA), feminist Gloria Steinem, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Lee Saunders. Ellison also had the overwhelming support of the grassroots, progressive organizations and PACs and labor unions, which is especially significant, given that Perez was the one who had been the secretary of labor.

And his election would have been a symbolic olive branch to the very people the party needs to reach out to. The sense that the primary had been rigged (regardless of whether it was), was obviously strong enough to make Perez promise not to repeat it. Given that, the politically smart thing to do would have been to reach out to potential defectors and win back potential Democrats. The practical value of this is what, I assume, led so many former Clinton supporters to back Ellison. I doubt Chuck Schumer, an Israel hawk, found Ellison, who sees the humanity of Palestinians, simpatico all of a sudden. He found him a strategic ally.

It wasn’t clear why Perez appeared out of nowhere to enter the DNC Chair race in December, a month after Ellison had declared, but it was long suspected that Obama had something to do with it. Obama had, in the words of Huffington Post reporters, “all but endorse[d] Tom Perez against Keith Ellison,” during an end of year press conference held the same week Perez announced his bid. “Tom Perez has been” Obama said, ”one of the best Secretaries of Labor in our history.” The always diplomatic Obama predictably added, “Now, others who have declared are also my friends, and are fine people as well, and the great thing is, I don’t have a vote in this… So we’ll let the process unfold.” Still, Obama’s comments were enough to provoke one Senate Democratic aide to tell Huffington Post, “It takes a lot of nerve for the White House… to meddle in the race to head an organization they thwarted for eight years.”

And in February, Obama’s former Vice President, Joe Biden, and his former Attorney General both endorsed his former Secretary of Labor.

But we now know that Obama, behind the scenes, not only pressured Perez to run, but lobbied for him throughout the rest of the campaign. As I write this, I’m still mystified that the story about Obama literally rigging the DNC Chair election hasn’t received more attention. It seems like a kind of a big deal. In all fairness, the Politico piece that broke the story really buried the lede, somehow transforming what should have been an article about Obama’s inappropriate meddling into one about Sanders’ failures. So, you’d have to get past the headline (“Sanders revolution resists DNC loss :What happens next for the Bernie wing ‘is an open question,’ says one top Democrat*), the photo of a dejected-looking Sanders, and the first eight paragraphs before getting to this nugget:

The Minnesota congressman, a far left African-American Muslim, has clearly enjoyed becoming a more recognized leader of the party over the course of this race. That’s despite the distaste for his approach and profile that helped push former President Barack Obama to urge Perez into the race — and continue the support all the way through. He called DNC members himself, and had aides including confidante Valerie Jarrett, former political director David Simas and his White House director of political engagement Paulette Aniskoff working members by phone through the votes on Saturday afternoon.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who officially endorsed Perez, also worked the phones with members. Obama and Biden made a four-point pitch, according to a person familiar with the call strategy: Perez’s unimpeachable progressive credentials at the Justice and Labor departments, his ability to bring people together, his management skills and how he was one of the stars of the Obama administration.

This “top Democrat” who cast doubt on Sanders’ future just happens to be Kasim Reed, the Atlanta mayor and Clinton surrogate who was busted in May for a column he “wrote,” which bashed Sanders as out of touch. In turns out the speech had been written by a corporate lobbyist and edited by Correct the Record.

Why would Obama and his inner circle intervene on behalf of Perez and even convince him to run in the first place? Brad Johnson, an organizer and executive director of Climate Hawks Vote, is one of the only people who thought it was newsworthy that “Ex-President Barack Obama Orchestrated Tom Perez DNC Chair Victor,” as he put it in the headline of a piece he wrote at his website Hill Heat. Johnson who provides excellent context and analysis and does not, as you will see, mince words, opens the piece with,

Former president Barack Obama, whose legacy is being rapidly dismantled by President Donald Trump and a Republican Party dominating all levels of government, was instrumental in the election of Tom Perez as the new head of the Democratic Party… Obama, whose presidency oversaw a catastrophic collapse in electoral power for Democrats, and who paved the way for Hillary Clinton as the failed Democratic presidential nominee, has publicly expressed his intent to continue to direct the party now that he is out of office.

Johnson points out that in his first public statement after the DNC chair race, Obama was quick to “congratulate Perez and his own ‘legacy’.” Indeed, the president waxed poetic over Perez and himself in a speech that so epitomized Obama, I took the liberty of translating what he said into what it really meant:

“Congratulations to my friend Tom Perez on his election to lead the Democratic Party, and on his choice of Keith Ellison to help him lead it. I’m proud of all the candidates who ran, and who make this great party what it is.”

[moderate, praising both, praising unity and the diversity that allows a Latino candidate to defeat a Black Muslim candidate, thanks to a campaign of Muslim-baiting]

“What unites our party is a belief in opportunity – the idea that however you started out, whatever you look like, or whomever you love, America is the place where you can make it if you try.”

[Republican-light bootstrapping, I’m Black and I got to be president and there are lots of successful LGBT people out there, (thanks, in large part, to a president who helped overturn DOMA and DADT, you’re welcome) so if you fail, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.]

“Over the past eight years, our party continued its track record of delivering on that promise: growing the economy, creating new jobs, keeping our people safe with a tough, smart foreign policy, and expanding the rights of our founding to every American – including the right to quality, affordable health insurance.”

[Humble brag, allow me to remind you of my signature achievement, a healthcare system just to right of what Mitt Romney set up as governor of Massachusetts]

“That’s a legacy the Democratic Party will always carry forward. I know that Tom Perez will unite us under that banner of opportunity, and lay the groundwork for a new generation of Democratic leadership for this big, bold, inclusive, dynamic America we love so much.”

[Tom Perez will maintain my legacy way more than a guy I disagreed with on a lot of issues. And I’m going to shape this party in my image for as longs as possible]

Obama surprised some by his atypically impolitic comments about Hillary Clinton which he made shortly after she lost to Donald Trump. He did seem to throw her under the bus, when he said he could have defeated Trump if had he run for a third term in an interview with David Axelrod. He claimed that Trump’s win was to due not to his governing or policies but to bad messaging and Clinton’s failure to connect and relate to people. It was really a combination of all those three things. But his response was so atypically overt in its self-congratulation, it suggested that something had really gotten under his skin. Like the feeling that he had actually contributed to a Trump presidency.

An Ellison win would have represented victory for the Sanders movement, which would have represented failure for the Obama Coalition. Clinton ran on and was hamstrung by her relationship to the Obama Administration. Sanders ran in large part against the status quo and the failures of the Democratic Party, which, by definition, included Obama. A Clinton loss followed by gains for Sanders’ insurgent campaign would have compounded the pain—which Obama couldn’t bear.

Obama and his inner circle are so interested in maintaining a narrative that reflects well on his presidency and positions him as powerful and influential player, they were willing to thwart the campaign of a man who had already managed to unify the party and would have continued to do so. And, of course, win elections.

The role of pundits, writers, and Twitter personalities in perpetuating these narratives will have to be covered in another piece. But it’s worth noting that the people who supported Perez and called for unity both before and after the election were supporting a candidate who was put into the race by a former president who cared more about his legacy than about making the party as united and enthusiastic as possible.

Interestingly enough, people who are obsessed with Israel or with the Democratic Party are often the ones who are least capable of seeing what’s actually in their own best interests. Someone with more emotional distance can see how ties to Israel have not only been bad for Palestinians, but threatened Israel’s chances of survival. The doves who are motivated more by human rights than they are by the state of Israel, per se, have positions that are more “pro-Israel” than those who claim to be pro-Israel. Similarly, neither Obama nor Clinton was able to see something that was so clear to people who weren’t in the bubble. Their denial hurts the Democrats and hurts their legacies. But they’re the last ones to see it.

Born, raised, and still living in NYC, Katie Halper is a writer, radio show host, filmmaker, comedian and former history teacher who identifies as a feminist Bernie Bro. You can find her writing and videos at Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice, and catch The Katie Halper Show on on WBAI Wednesdays at 7pm, the podcast on Soundcloud and iTunes and extra bonus content at Patreon, and follow her on Twitter.

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